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The Community Manager Interviews: 2K Games` Elizabeth Tobey 2

The second in a four-part Gamasutra series on community management features 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey on defining her role, the success of the "Cult of Rapture" portal for BioShock, and more.

Chris Remo

April 23, 2009

13 Min Read

Over the next two weeks, Gamasutra is presenting a series of interviews with community managers from four different companies -- publishers, publisher-owned studios, and independent studios. As a field that is relatively young and frequently loosely-defined, community has not always gotten the amount of coverage that might be due such an integral part of operating in the modern, interactive world of promotion and communication. The second interview in the series, following our chat to Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer, is with 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey, who joined the company in 2006 to build community initiatives around BioShock from a "blank slate." It was actually her first such role -- she'd never worked in the game industry before, and having no diagram on what a community manager ought to be, she invented her own definition. Tobey created the popular "Cult of Rapture" community site, which in addition to acting as a communications hub, has served visitors and registrants with extras like concept art, music files and even podcasts. Although she has a background in marketing and PR, Tobey clearly defines her priority is fans first, game second -- recognizing the "blurry line" that often appears between community management and marketing, she here explains why it's important to keep a specific focus, how The Cult of Rapture gained legitimacy and traction, and how she defined her own role. What is a community manager, in your view? Community manager and the role of community at 2K is actually interfacing with the fans. The way I look at it is that you are first the advocate for the fans and then the advocate for the game. And then after that, you are the liaison, the go-between, and you work with the developer, the publisher, marketing, PR, and everybody else. But really, when I think about it, I'm working first for the fans and for the game. Pre-release, it's all about figuring out what fans want to hear about, want to see, want to get, and giving it to them -- giving them the best experience, getting them the most information, figuring out how to make marketing and PR more dynamic and specific to the community with forums and everything else to really make people happy and get the information they want. Then, of course, post-release, it's all about having quick, effective support and listening to people. Marketing and PR is great, but one of the great things about blending all those things together and having such an active community is that you get a dialogue and a two-way street -- whereas in the past, a lot of it has just been one-way. Is that something companies or marketers have had a difficult time adjusting to? How do you modify processes from the more traditional top-down method? I don't think that it's been difficult to adjust, because you're not going to abandon PR or marketing. I think one of the things that's important is having them all work together. When I came on in 2006, we didn't have a proper community, so we said, let's make one. It was a blank slate -- dream up what you want and figure out what to do, which is where I think we might be a little un-traditional. Somebody made it up as they went along. But it's all integrated into it -- I have marketing and some PR background, so I know how those things work. Everybody says community and marketing can be a blurry line. But I think focusing on the particular needs of your audience and trying to figure out how to make people more excited and get them more information -- being focused on the actual consumer rather than a human mass -- is really what defines "community" with a capital C. You mentioned 2K didn`t have an existing community structure when you came in. How did you get that going? Well, when I came on, it was specifically to work on BioShock, because that was a new IP and we didn't have anything around it. I first, of course, learned everything that was already out there on the internet -- everything people were saying and desiring for that game, since it was already rolling by that time. I built The Cult of Rapture, BioShock`s community site, and I started working hand in hand with our marketing director. [BioShock creative director] Ken Levine wanted podcasts, so we started doing the podcasts. I went and visited the [2K Boston] team every six weeks, and so I saw what they were doing, and just by talking to them and being with them, I started getting all my updates. As things started picking up with all of that, marketing started saying things like, "Oh, we've got the box art, why don't we throw that your way?" In that way, the community really gained legitimacy and traction, not just with the very hardcore who happened to pick up on it, but with the larger gaming populace -- a lot of the blogs, a lot of the journalists. We became a source of really cool information. Not press release information, but a deeper look at the game. I think the way we founded it first was through the community site and then by bringing on the forums. That's where the proper dialogue got going. But I really think our community is a lot larger than just a community site or the forums. It's customer service. It's how you design limited editions, how you design art books, the store, everything. So The Cult of Rapture was largely the thing that springboarded a lot of your how you went on to run community at 2K? Yeah. I came in obviously from a gamer background, but I hadn't worked in the industry before. I was involved in communities, but I didn't have any classical community manager training. I probably couldn't have described to you what the typical community manager was back in 2006 if you asked me to, so I made it up. I think that over the years, community in general has moved in the way that I think anyway. It's increasingly important everywhere. You hear about social networking and everything -- that's community. I just approach everything literally as if I were the gamer on the other end of this website, t-shirt, art book, or poster. What would I want? It makes your job really, really easy when you're actually excited about something and you are that gamer dork who really wants those things for yourself. That's just what I did. Everything that I saw that was cool, or needed more attention, or that I wanted to learn about, or that I wanted to share that I have learned, I just went with it. If you want to go to the game's site and just find a synopsis and see the amazing flashy product site, fine. But if you want to keep coming back to it, and keep finding information, and become involved or even just in passing come once a month and go see what's going on in the community, you should allow for that. The community shouldn't be just a small inclusive thing only for a small group. It should expand out to as many people as you want. And no matter how casual or how involved you are, you shouldn't always just jump in out of it. I think it's the integrated nature of everything that really makes the community special. Have you done much with actual dedicated social networking sites? It is an area of focus, and we've experimented with it. I use some Facebook groups and fan pages for Civilization Revolution, and currently BioShock 2 and Mafia II have Twitters. We've got subscriptions on iTunes and RSS feeds, each game-specific. The thing that is really important about any of that stuff is to know why you're doing it and to not just do it to do it. Don't make a Facebook or fan page or anything just to have it, and put the same stuff that you have on the community page. Have it be different, tailored, and specific to that form. Twitter is great for interacting with groups, and the replies are awesome. But I think so many people are saying, "We have to use these things. We've got to be on Facebook. We`ve got to be on Twitter." It's about stepping back and saying, "Why are we doing this? What is the coolest thing to do?" That pervades everything, whether I'm creating Xbox themes or PS3 themes or gamer pics. It's like, "Why are we doing this?" and "What do we want to gain out of this?" and "What does the gamer want?" The BioShock PS3 theme was one of the first paid ones, and it had a really good reception. I was really nervous about that because once you offer anything that's paid to the community, are they going to like it? Are they going to think it's worth it? I think it's because we sat down and said, it's not just, "Oh, this is a new thing and we have to do it," but rather, "Why are we doing this?" and, "What makes it worthwhile?" What are some campaigns or features that went over particularly well? Are there any that haven't? That PS3 theme is a really good example of something successful. Another cool thing that we did that was really successful was that for Civilization Revolution, we did an artist series from Shepard Fairey, who made a special piece of art of Napoleon, and then Aidan Hughes did one of Abraham Lincoln. Those were really, really awesome. Everybody likes posters of game stuff, but you don't want them to be just, you know, your logo and a screenshot. We like to be artistic and think deeper -- bring in new aspects and look at the game from new angles. Because Civilization ties into propaganda, those two people made a good fit. That ended up being not just cool for marketing and for the community, as well as a really cool thing to hang on your wall, but it also got a lot of people interested and thinking. And it was really relevant and expanded outside of video games. I'm trying to think of something that really flopped. I`ve probably stricken those from my memory. I'm always testing contests, sweepstakes, and things like that, and I've had a couple things like, "Take a picture in a wacky situation," or, "Design something for a screensaver or a wallpaper." You get good results, but you don't get that overwhelming feedback. That's good, and it serves its purpose, so I don't want to say it's a flop as such, but... It's limited in reach. Yeah, it's limited. One of those things everybody always says and I always say is, "Don't already do what you've done before." For BioShock, we did a Threadless T-shirt competition. That got a ton of praise and a ton of press, but you don't want to do it again. I don't want to run another T-shirt contest, because you don't want to keep doing the same thing and just fall into a routine. It's really, really easy to do, and it just gets boring. You don't want to be boilerplate. Any time I do something new or push something further, that's when generally you get enough feedback and praise from your friends that it's really worth doing. How do you measure success of a particular campaign of promotion -- by ear, or is it a holistic sense of things? Do you have ways of measuring impressions or conversions? There are a ton of ways you can do it. A lot of it is subjective, and some of it is tracked. All of our websites track page hits, uniques, and so on, so I can go in and say, "Something In The Sea -- how many unique people came on the first day? How many unique people came on the first week?" And I'll know how successful that campaign was to me. But also, to me, it's how many people talked about it -- not just on the 2K forums, because one of the important things about community is that you have to build a hub that everybody wants to come to, but you also have to try and go to them, even if you can't be talking to them absolutely everywhere. But you need to expand out and reach out. Even if you can't be talking to everyone and be everywhere, obviously, you need to at least watch and listen. I can't tell you how many Google Alerts I have for certain keywords. Just watch that -- what are people saying? How many people are saying things? How many Google Alerts do I get the first day? How many blogs, how many journalists pick things up? What do they say about it? That kind of awareness is really important. As big and expansive as my job has gotten, there is that core. A community manager still has to say, "This is what the community is saying," report that, and let everyone know what's going on -- good, bad, and ugly -- and then figure out what to do about it. Be the person who says, "This is what they want. This is what they're saying. This is the reaction." When we do a big thing, like when the BioShock 2 gameplay footage went out, the first thing I did in the morning was go everywhere, figure out what people were saying, parse what that was, and send that out to people so we knew what to do next. A lot of it qualitative, but that is the nature of it, because much of it is opinion-based. Any final thoughts for other community managers? I think one of the best things that ever happened to me was that I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing, so I didn't do that. Anyone who is a community manager or is thinking about going into something community-related should think about what that word means and not just think, "Oh, that means I need to run a forum and a website." Think about what you would want, and don`t be afraid to do those things. If you think, "Oh, that's ridiculous. That's outside my scope," just go ask. Because of the growing importance of community, you'll gain a lot of traction, and you might have thought of something that, even if you think it may be the purview of PR or marketing, you can still help influence and give valuable input that will benefit the gamer in the end. Essentially, stop thinking about what you should be doing, and think about everything that you're not doing, or that you want to do or that you would love to see, and just go do it. That sounds really cheesy, but it's right. If you say, "That would be so rad," then you should probably do it.

About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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